Siam I Am

Friday, May 12, 2006

Siam Chronicles 24 - Through the Window Pane, Busing the Tibetan Plain

We've spent 36 hours on a bus in the last four days. Alex has drunk Lama spit. We've eaten every part of a yak. We've braved our way up the backbone of the Tibetan plain from Shangri-La to Chengdu by bus.

8am: The cab taking us into town from the airport smells of stale cigarettes and is adorned in prayer beads jangling from the mirror and pictures of the Dali Lama plastered to the windshield - not a good sign. We book past sky burial grounds on the yellow reach of flatland, colorful prayer flags whip in the wind, under the purple shadow of spreading mountains shouldering the cobalt sky. White stupas bellow incense clouds ringed by innumerable cairns, and I shiver in my thin sweatshirt as the tangy smoke claws through the ill-fitting window, borne on a wild wind shrilling the chill from the snow cambering down the peaks.
9am: I am trying to stay warm in the belly of the local youth hostel in Zhongdian. It is full of flags and covered in graffiti on the dark stained wood. The central fire is close with smoke and fleeting heat, the windows shuddering in the artic blasts. Alex is cradling a tall clear glass filled with hot water and chamomile flowers - fresh yellow blooms floating on top exhaling a sweet smell, their petals drifting like snow through the steaming liquid, refracting a lovely slip of white light on the worn wood table. I am eating a thick slab of homemade bread, it is sweet and flaky, dipping it into a fried egg and spearing a dab of salted ham. Occasionally I stop to savor a sip of warm milk, freshly squeezed from the yak tree, rich and thick on my tongue.
12pm: I am wandering through old town, which is under massive renovation. Workers in tribal garb carry stones big as a mule between them on a rope in a swirl of wood chips. The streets are close and circular, with rough hewn cobblestones thick and irregular under my feet, slick with wear, it is difficult to tread. The buildings are immensely beautiful, rich amber or chocolate wood, all intricately carved figures and patterns on lattices, painted in primary colors at the seams and overhung with thick curtains in bold black and white designs from which the scent of wood smoke tendrils out into the sharp mountain air.
3pm: I am in a honey wood room, warm by the fire, the floor is covered in vivid rugs, the walls are strewn with reckless bolts of deep color. Through the window pane I can see the gray cobblestone road tilting crazily up and down the hills like an Escher painting. I am taking my first bite of yak. I have yak dumplings in yak soup, Alex has yak stew. It is rich, indelibly unique, and delicious. We glut, then sit and read in the blue winter light that never leaves this altitude. After a while Alex notices that the remainders of our dishes have congealed into hard yak lard. We poke at the white heaps, and my stomach does a pirouette.
8pm: After searching for two hours for a working internet connection, we find a quiet bar with a doyen named Barry from Shanghai. He instructs us to bring our own computer, we do, he sets us up. The bar is traditional Tibetan in dark wood, with a central fire coughing up pine wood fumes, dim lit. It is cozy, there is no one else there. The connection works, we are online. Barry brings us tea and fresh strawberries, we savor the saturation of comfort.
2am: I am running through the freezing courtyard in a t-shirt and long underwear to use the hole in the dark. I notice there are many stars, and that it is cold and dark.

10am: I am walking up the central stairs through an ancient city that is one big monastery. There are temples hidden in every corner, each different. The monks wear scarlet, they contrast vividly with the deep blue sky and wispy dragon clouds. An eighty year old monk, sunken and toothless, is easily beating me up the steps. He laughs, and keeps saying "Hello" in a thick accent, deep and phlegmatic in the thin air.
12pm: The temples are exquisite. They are like nothing I've ever seen. The murals are so intricate in the dim light and blur of incense and yak tallow votives that my eyes hurt. We travel from the bottom to the rooftops of each temple, wondering that the clouds are different every time, sometimes huge white billows, sometimes winding wisps, sometimes a fringe of fish scales. Sound travels further in these mountains as well, there is always the low descant of the long horn and the reboant flange of polytonal chanting from somewhere in the sprawl.
8pm: I thought at first the dancing was a singular event. Not so. Every night, presaging the darkling, a few old women and men down from the mountains start a circular dance on the main square around a dented boombox on a wooden chair. The sky is now a deep sapphire, fringed in a shimmer of aquamarine behind the mountains. Everyone is now dancing in concentric circles - the whole town - shopkeepers, tribes, tourists, everyone. It is simple and joyous.
2am: The rats in the rice sacks that line the ceiling are keeping me awake. Every movement causes the fabric to billow and crinkle, perfectly outlining their squirming shapes. I can't see them anymore, the night is very dark, but I can hear them as they waltz and converse in high notes of query. I get up to use the bathroom, and once again slip down the steps that have been worn over time into a veritable wooden slide, stripped and gleaming in the starlight, and tread through the irregular courtyard in the cold to the hole in the ground.

2pm: The yaks are watching, I know they are, as I get naked on top of the mountain. It has taken a good deal of effort to find the hidden hot springs, but find them we did. I try to pull on my swimsuit as quickly as possible, I feel incredibly exposed as the wind tears into my flesh. All the people here have cheeks that are permanently red, like dolls, from the wind, some have ears that are forever black from the same. The view of the green mountain carapaces huddling together under that intensely vast sky while we soaked in a cauldron of chartreuse slime would be worth it.

4pm: Mountains. There is an unbelievable amount of nothing but mountains for ever and ever and ever and ever as I loll my head on the cool window pane of the bus and rub my feet together for the illusion of warmth. The gawky guy in front of us thinks he's the Marlboro man, chain smoking in a Stetson. I turn back to the endless panorama and try to enjoy it - the golden valleys with rocky streams folding up crisp like satin into yellow hills, backed by green mountains of pine, speckled with purple wildflowers, framed by massive monoliths of blue rock, topped in snow. The clouds are ever changing and lovely. The Marlboro man is still chain smoking and the ashes coat my face.

9am: Mountains. There is an unbelievable amount of nothing but mountains for ever and ever and ever and ever as I loll my head on the cool window pane of a massive freight semi - the bus was full - and again rub my feet together for the illusion of warmth.
10am: It is snowing.
2pm: The old monk is named Songdu, we're up on the top of the mountain in Litang, which is already situated at a stupidly high altitude. Every prolonged motion leaves me weak and sets black spots swimming through my vision. Songdu's face is lean, bony lineaments outlined in deep wrinkles, around a smile sweetly curving up from long teeth stained saffron. He does not speak English, we do not speak Chinese, but he is full of good humor and is willing to caper about pantomiming his meaning. He is teaching us about Buddhism in this way. We're on the top floor, it is warm and heaped in piles of tapestries and devotional scarves. It is the final stop in our impromptu tour, and he picks up an old Sprite bottle. He says "Dali Lama" and acts out spitting into it. He passes it to Alex, who drinks some as instructed. I defer. Alex will later claim that Songdu acted out breathing into the bottle, but I will maintain that the spitting motion is universal and that Alex drank Lama spit.

5pm: Mountains. I never thought there could be so many mountains. As we go through the passes, prayer flags are flung from the windows. They catch in mid-air, bright against the gray rocks, green pine and purple rhododendron, then do cunctatory somersaults through the sky. We pass villages that span space and time - some straight from the pueblos, pink or white stucco boxes, small windows, big internal courtyard, some from ancient Greece, with yellow brick and big external courtyard, some pure ancient China, big wood squares, all slanting roof, a tiny smudge of wall, houses piled one atop each other in a convoluted mass. We pass countless tent villages of nomads herding yak, the tents are made from piled rock and tarps, and each grouping has a pool table set out in the front, in pride of place, with the mountains for walls in these singular pool halls.

1pm: Mountains. Green now, trellised and stout like ziggurats. The mist swallows the tops, and roiling clouds rill through the valleys like vats of boiling milk. We've left the Tibetan plain, this is the "Chinese" China now. No more roughs in long hair and blanket sarongs, no more women with braids about their brow with bright fabrics woven into the pleat and handmade clothes in saturated hues. There are instead factories, cars, mines - drips of progress falling as steadily as the thin drizzle over the mountains.
4pm: We've made it to Chengdu. We celebrate by immediately buying a plane ticket to Inner Mongolia. But that's a story for another time.


At 9:13 AM, Anonymous mooms said...

Well, you're finally there! Good blog, too . . .


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